Book: Mishima by John Nathan

Biography of a famous Japanese writer who was nuts

John Nathan
Mishima: A Biography
Da Capo, 2000 (originally published in 1974)
ISBN: 0-306-80977-X
281 pages (main text)

A while ago I read and enormously enjoyed John Nathan's Japan Unbound. I liked it well enough that I was keen to read whatever else Mr Nathan had written without much concern over what the subject was. That's how I came to read a biography of a Japanese writer whose books I haven't read and whom I had really only barely heard of.

That I had only barely heard of him is my omission. That I haven't read any of his books seems to be a blessing.

Yukio Mishima is the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, but it's by his pen name that he's generally known. That's not surprising because he was a very famous and amazingly prolific writer. The book's list of his major plays and novels runs to 36 entries. And that's not by any means all of them since he wrote many plays and novels that he didn't consider "major", and plenty of stories and articles besides. He is said never to have missed a writing deadline.

When Mishima was born in 1925 his family was not well off. His father had been a high-ranking civil servant but had resigned in disgrace after a corruption scandal. His mother was of a (formerly) noble family but was subject to bouts of hysteria. Mishima was raised by his nutty grandmother until he was 12 and then briefly by has (by then) hardly-less-nutty father. Probably on account of that, he took to writing, a safely solitary activity. His father liked that not at all.

Mishima just avoided being drafted near the end of the second world war (likely a death sentence) and got a law degree from Tokyo Imperial University once the war was over. On graduation, he went to work for the Ministry of Finance, but quit after nine months to write full time. By then, his father had become reconciled to having a writer for a son. A year later, his novel Confessions of a Mask was published and it was a great success. With occasional exceptions, his literary success continued until the end of his life.

As I mentioned, I haven't read any of Mishima's books. And Mr Nathan's discussions of them and the extracts that he prints haven't caused me to want to do anything about that. Mr Nathan reports that once, in a grumpy mood, he wrote that reading a Mishima novel was like, "attending an exhibition of the world's most ornate picture frames" (p. xvi). That's not Mr Nathan's considered opinion, of course. But I suspect that it might be mine.

So what kind of guy was Mishima? Thoroughly nutty, it seems. He seems to have found, not just excitement in the destruction of the second world war, but also some perverse sort of beauty:

    The air raids on the distant metropolis, which I watched from the
    shelter at the arsenal, were beautiful. (p. 58)

and he seems to have missed that "beauty" once the war was over. He also seems to have missed the certainty that came from obedience in wartime; Mr Nathan says that Mishima had trouble finding a purpose in life. He often seems to have thought that meaning could come from a "beautiful" death. In 1960 he was a self-proclaimed nihilist and by 1969 he was an ultra-nationalist. That is, he started out believing in nothing and ended up believing in something dumb.

Mr Nathan also makes a persuasive case that Mishima was obsessed with the conjunction of sex and death. It may be that all you need to know is:

    The Sound of Waves is the only love story Mishima ever wrote
    that was neither perverted nor sardonic. (p. 121)

I'm sure that Mr Nathan wouldn't call Mishima's homosexuality perverted if here were writing today. But I'm also sure that Mr Nathan wasn't thinking only of homosexuality when he wrote that.

In 1968, Mishima organized his "Shield Society". It was a sort of cross between a troop of emperor-worshipping boy scouts and a small private army, armed only with swords. In 1970 he used the boys to stage a ludicrous attempt to persuade the Japanese army to revolt against its political masters and Japan's American-imposed constitution. Taking a General hostage, he demanded to address the General's troops. When the troops were assembled, Mishima ranted at them from a rooftop for about seven minutes while they jeered him. Then he went back inside and committed ritual suicide. It seems that he was trying for that beautiful death, but it comes off as being just silly.

i haven't been able to figure out under just what circumstances Mr Nathan wrote Mishima. It reads a bit like a dissertation and I wouldn't be surprised if it had its origin in something of that sort. That's not much of a compliment; the dissertation is not a genre that routinely produces fabulous books.

But despite all that, Mishima is good. It's not as good as Japan Unbound, and Mr Nathan's writing is recognizably less mature in it. But it's still very much worth reading. Mishima was a nutter, but Mr Nathan makes him an interesting one.

Posted: Sun - September 5, 2004 at 12:37   Main   Category: